Student artists paint life into San Jose’s streets


Graphic illustration by Jason Shan

Electrical boxes add a splash of colorful artwork to San Jose’s streets.

Chelsea Lee, Design Editor

On daily drives and evening walks, local residents find art ranging from scenic snow-capped mountains to a giant book. Local student artists are the visionaries behind these pieces, thinking outside of the box to add color to our commutes by painting the most unexpected and often overlooked objects: power boxes.

Easily unnoticed due to their weather-worn olive color, power boxes mounted to sidewalks house equipment to control the electrical supply of nearby houses. For many artists, power boxes also hold the potential to beautify our cities. Decorated power boxes painted with multi-colored abstract shapes, delicate blooming flowers and other subjects are scattered throughout the streets of Santa Clara County. Rainbow butterflies are what some Lynbrook students see every day as they walk through the intersection between Bollinger Road and Johnson Avenue.

The City of Cupertino and Hongyun Art studio host city-wide design contests open to children of all ages for the opportunity to unleash their imagination on local power boxes. Selected designs are painted through a collaborative effort between the winning designers and teams of Hongyun Art students with the goal of spreading positive messages on topics of sustainability, such as water conservation and green transportation. In the middle of a Cupertino plaza at the intersection between Stevens Creek Boulevard and Bandley Drive, there is a power box encouraging people to reduce their food waste.

“It gives people an idea that we’re a community that cares about our environment and that we personally can take action,” Hongyun Art co-founder Tommy Suriwong said. “I’m hoping that’s the message that everybody’s seeing, especially for the kids when they walk around and see this fun image. I feel like that’s a good way to solidify it, especially in a young person.”

Members of Public Art Club have assisted similar power box design contests for the City of Saratoga in the past by priming the metal surfaces of power boxes, preparing them for designers and painters to bring their plans to life. One of the power boxes that Public Art Club members have primed now looks like a giant book, located by the Saratoga Library.

“Power box art definitely brings more color literally and figuratively to the community, and it’s nice to see art around,” former Public Art Club President Isabel Moh said. “The Bay Area is such a STEM-heavy location, [and] it’s just great to be reminded that art has a larger impact than you think.”

Local artist and senior Alyssa Meng also paints power boxes as an independent community project for the City of San Jose, separate from Hongyun Art. She was pleasantly surprised when she saw her work featured on the popular mobile game, Pokémon Go. In augmented reality, players of Pokémon Go go to specific locations, or PokéStops, to catch Pokémon characters. Two PokéStops showcase the work she completed during the past summer. A power box at the intersection between South Tantau Avenue and Bollinger Road displays an abstract world encompassing vivid mountains, flowers and planets, while dainty red roses and butterflies decorate a power box at the intersection between Bollinger Road and South Blaney Boulevard.

“I remember one time when I was working on this one utility box with a lot of pops of color, this woman came up to me and said, ‘I drive past this street every single day, but this new painting really brightened up my usual, everyday drive,’ and that really resonated with me,” Meng said. “I felt like I really wanted to do more.”

For Meng, this project started in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic as a productive activity to get her out of the house while giving back to the community, and she plans to complete three more by the end of summer 2022. She also enjoys painting power boxes because it includes an unusual medium and acts as an outlet to relieve academic stress. 

“I see art as something that de-stresses me, that I can enjoy and that I don’t suck at,” Meng said. “School is something that is uncertain and sometimes you don’t know if you’re going to fail, whereas with art, I know I can create something beautiful no matter what.”